If you’re still shopping for tomato seedlings for your small kitchen garden, consider buying large plants that are already flowering or setting fruit. If a seedling is over six inches tall, it should have a fairly tick stem at the base—perhaps as thick as your pinky finger. If the plant is setting fruit, the stem should be even thicker. This three-foot tall tomato cost $20 and came with a pot and a tomato cage: everything you’d need to manage it on your patio or deck. For around $5, I could buy a two-foot tall plant ready to transplant into my garden.
If your small kitchen garden is in raised garden beds, you shouldn’t have to work real hard to plant in the spring. Soil in a raised planting bed gets little or no foot traffic. This means it shouldn’t get compressed, and it shouldn’t require deep tilling to make life easy on plant roots.
That said, you really need to get moving if you haven’t yet planted your small kitchen garden. At this point, cold-weather crops should be well under way; perhaps you’re even eating spinach and lettuce, and there are flowers on your pea plants. If you’re growing tomatoes, you’d have done very well to keep them indoors under lights until now; April and some of May have been the coldest I remember in 14 years of kitchen gardening in hardiness zone 5/6.
As of the first of June, I can hope to see four solid months before any threat of frost; that’s 100 days for the slowest-growing plants to mature, and only twenty days of tomato harvest. Of course, I should get a much better harvest if I plant tomato varieties that mature quickly; some claim 65 days to maturity, which would provide 55 days of tomato harvest.
Prepare a raised bed by weeding, spreading three inches of compost or manure, and marking off planting zones. I set potted tomato seedlings on the soil to evaluate their spacing in the bed.
Plant Tomatoes Now
If you want to ensure your best harvest from slow-growing tomatoes, buy large plants. At garden stores and nurseries in late spring, you can usually find plants so mature that they are already flowering… and maybe even setting fruit. Such plants are pricey, but if you can plant them this week, and start harvesting within a month, they’ll easily pay for themselves.
To plant a seedling—tomato or otherwise—in a small kitchen garden raised bed, dig a hole through the compost layer into the soil. Pile the soil you remove from the hole to one side, and dig deep enough to set the root ball of the seedling completely under ground.
Use the soil you removed to make the hole to back-fill around the root ball. This combines soil and compost, providing a rich mix for the seedling. Other photos below illustrate appropriate planting depths for tomatoes and for nearly all other produce seedlings.
Look for leafy plants with thick stems—perhaps as thick as your index finger (or your thumb) where they emerge from the soil. Don’t buy a large tomato plant that has long, skinny stems between leaves. Chances are it hasn’t received enough light or it’s severely pot-bound, or both.
If you still have time to get in 120 or more frost-free growing days, you can plant four-to-six-week-old tomatoes from flats. Again, be cautious: by late spring, garden stores may be selling off the last of the year’s seedling inventory. If you have a choice between tall, slender plants with few leaves, or short, thick-stemmed plants with lots of leaves, buy the short ones. But if your only choice is tall, slender plants (many gardeners call them “leggy”), that’s OK. Under your expert care, they’ll fatten up and produce beautifully (it’s a simple trick I’ll explain in an upcoming post).
When your seedling is in a peat pot, you can plant the pot along with the seedling. I encourage you, however, to tear off the pot. Though roots can grow through the peat, as you see here they tend to wrap around inside the pot and slow the plant’s growth. I buy tomatoes in flats which are usually plastic. To remove one for planting, gently squeeze the cell it’s in a few times, then pull up on the stem of the seedling.
How to Make the Bed
That sub-head is metaphorical, referring not to the actual building of a raised bed, but rather to adjusting the pillows, sheets, and blankets to make a bed look tidy after you get up in the morning. I wrote several posts about preparing soil for planting, the last of which described one method for preparing a raised bed: remove weeds and other debris and then cover the bed with three inches of compost or manure. Please read the entire post here: Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation
With the organic layer in place, planting a seedling is a snap: dig a hole large enough to fit the root ball, insert plant, back-fill with compost and soil. The photos in this post illustrate how to plant a tomato seedling in a raised bed. In an upcoming post, I’ll explain some characteristics of tomato plants that make them easy to grow. I’ll also explain how to deal with problem tomato seedlings to get the best possible results from them.
Planting Depth in a Small Kitchen Garden
Most kitchen garden plants will rot and die if you plant their stems too deeply. Tomatoes, on the other hand, benefit from having a lot of stem underground. As a rule, plant according to the photo on the left below. When planting tomato seedlings, plant according to the photo on the right.
For nearly every type of seedling you might plant in a small kitchen garden, set the top of the seedling’s potting soil even with the soil of the garden bed. The green line on the photo to the left emphasizes that the top of the root ball of the pepper plant will sit even with the soil of the container in which I’m planting it. Plant tomatoes deep. The stem of the six-inch tomato seedling I’ve planted on the right was already hardening off and would not have thickened as the plant grew. So, I’ve buried the root ball deep enough that only the top three leaves of the seedling are above soil (the green line shows the path of the stem from the roots to the surface). Roots will sprout along the buried stem, and new growth above ground will thicken out, making a strong plant.